Vojtech Jasny - a filmmaker in different eras

Vojtech Jasny

One of the symbols of the success of Czech cinema in the sixties is the film director Vojtech Jasny. His best known work from that time is called "All My Good Countrymen" - "Vsichni dobri rodaci" in Czech. The film tells the story of a few friends living in a Moravian village in the 1950's.

Vojtech Jasny
In a gentle way it explores the human spirit in the backdrop of the dramatic political changes of those times. Czech villages and relationships among their inhabitants were badly affected by the process of forced collectivization of farms. Vojtech Jasny's film is very critical of these events and it could not have been possible if it had not been made at the time of the political relaxation during the Prague Spring in 1968. However, the film did not stay in Czech cinemas for long. After Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and hard line communists replaced the liberally oriented, the film was banned. Since Vojtech Jasny would not be allowed to shoot any other films, unless they supported the regime, he decided to leave the country.

But Vojtech Jasny was not always so critical of the regime. As a young film school student he shot a few films which sang the praises of the emerging communist system. One of them was Bajecna leta "The Extraordinary Years" - a documentary which he made in 1952 with another director who later became a Czech film legend, Karel Kachyna. In the spirit of the time, this propaganda film praises collectivization and denounces its opponents.

Film director and Czech TV producer Pavel Tausig was fascinated by this contradiction and decided to shoot a TV documentary called "Return to the extraordinary years".

"The idea was to go along with Vojtech Jasny to this tiny village where in the fifties, as a young communist oriented film maker,he shot a film which presented itself as an objective documentary describing the creation of an agricultural cooperative. The film is very typical to its time; it is a sort of propagandistic picture with a good deal of lies and falsehoods, which denounces two farmers' families. In my documentary, which in a way revisits the past, we see Vojtech Jasny searching his own conscience."

'All My Good Countrymen'
Vojtech Jasny admits that he naively believed in the ideals of communism, but he says that even then he hadn't intended to lie.

"The Central Committee of the Communist Party was very interested in this film and than they told us what must be there; 'There must be Stalin, there must be Gotwald and this and this....Without that - no film.' So I said to my colleague Kachyna, we filmed this people and what is good will remain. What a pity we didn't shoot that in sound because it was manipulated by this commentary."

He says that, like so many others, he was naive at the time and really believed that communism was a good thing. Shortly afterwards, Jasny, as an officially approved prominent film director, got the chance to work in China. It was his experiences of working and traveling to other communist countries that gradually changed his political views.

"When I came back from the Soviet Union and China I decided that I will never more make dogmatic or stupid films. I promised this to myself and I found this courage. You believed that socialism is good but, I have seen that in the Soviet Union they murder people. I talked to Polish people who were brought to Siberia there. I was in Siberia and they blocked our cameras I could not shoot in the Soviet Union. I've seen it's everything cheat and there is a terror like the Nazi's. I stopped believing in this stupidity and I decided we will make our own Czechoslovak socialism if we can, and we will do it humanly and properly, like Christianity."

'All My Good Countrymen'
Vojtech Jasny's most successful film - The Countrymen - as he refers to it, tells the true story of people he knew from the rural area he came from. His foreign experiences had helped him see the realities behind collectivization.

"Because I am from a little town - Kelc and I shot it in Bystre, the great experience was when I came from China in 1952. Frantisek Slimacek he is the hero of the 'Countrymen'. He is the chief part played by a very good actor Brzobohaty. He was sent to prison but he escaped. They let them work there with pneumonia and die. He came home at the same time when I came from China to visit my mother. I saw they were killing my best friend and I have to save him. So I did what I could. I talked to people, so then they let him not to go back to prison but stay home and be healed. If we hadn't done it he would be dead."

Vojtech Jasny left the country at the beginning of the seventies, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. First he shot films in Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia and other European countries. Now he's been living in the United States for more than 20 years where he has taught at the Film Department of Columbia University in New York. Even though he is almost 80 today, he is still very fresh and keeps working.

"I've worked for many years with Arnost Lustig on 'Very Free' inspired by his novel 'The Unloved'. After seven drafts I started to work on it again. Now I worked for Spielberg on 'Hell on Earth', this documentary horror. I have seen materials that were not in the screenplay, nor in his book (Lustig's), because he was a young boy in Terezien-Stadt.There was a spiritual resistance in art and poetry...So I put there these boys who made the magazine 'Vedem', these young boys. Mr Ludvik who is in the novel of Lustig - I made him the mastermind of resistance in the Terezien-Stadt."

Vojtech Jasny's life was marked by turbulent political events. His father died in Auschwitz in 1942 and the young Jasny decided to join the anti-Nazi resistance working for the British Intelligence Service. This is also reflected in his later work.

"The Luftwafe Captain which is written as dreams - I let Mr Ludvik who is in the novel of Lustig - I made him real founding in a very good German book 'Der Schattenman'. It was written by a girl who was in resistance in Berlin. It's a great story. He is working with Kanaris to kill Hitler, and works for the British intelligence as I did during the wartime. So I put my experience as a British spy into my story."

Vojtech Jasny was not the only Czech artist who supported the regime in the fifties. Many young film-makers, writers and poets believed that communism was a good idea, a way of rejecting the horrors of Nazism for ever. In the face of the horrific realities of Stalinism, most of them changed their views in the sixties and sought ways of dealing with their experiences of the 50s. Vojtech Jasny's greatest films did so with exceptional sophistication and art.